Writing Exercises That Inspire


A Hint of Hank…


In the intermediate creative writing class I took at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre two years ago, our teacher gave us weekly writing assignments. I found these very helpful at flexing my writing muscle and letting the creativity flow. In an interview with Vulture, Gillian Flynn reported that the “Cool Girl” article in Gone Girl came about when she was doing a writing exercise to help alleviate writer’s block. She indicated that, as a rule, she tends not to use writing exercises in her actual manuscripts, as writers tend to “shoehorn” them in. This resonated with me as I had a few that I tried to do just that with, and ended up deleting. However, there are a couple of scenes that started as writing exercises that really inspired the trajectory of my story (in a good way). I thought I would share one with you today.


The assignment was to write something from the starter line, “There is a particular place he is going to tonight but…”, and to just let it flow. I thought about my main male protagonist, ‘Hank’ when writing it. This is NOT the version in my manuscript for Unspeakable, but rather the exercise that inspired a ‘TSN Turning Point’ scene (I also removed names and spoilers). This exercise helped me understand ‘Hank’ a little bit better and set the tone of his voice.

I hope you enjoy it!

On the shores of Wabigoon Lake


There is a particular place he is going to tonight but he is not prepared to admit to himself where that is. If he ends up there again, it is not on purpose. This is a small town, there are not many streets, it’s only natural – after all this was his hiding place – not hers.

He pulls up to the dead-end street at the edge of town. He kills the engine and tilts the powerful machine onto its stand. He yanks the helmet off of his head, rests it on the black leather seat and runs his calloused hand through his smooth black hair, allowing the cool evening breeze to evaporate the sweat that has gathered in his short locks. He told himself that he was just going for a walk along the familiar pathway, to gather his thoughts, clear his head, to be alone. That’s not what he wanted. He wanted to see her again, to be allowed to touch her. He pushes the thought of her out his mind, pushes his body away from her, quickly marching forward. They are like magnets, you spin them in one direction and the attraction is undeniable, turn one to face the other way and they repel. He is searching solitude yet simultaneously seeking her.

His black boots compress the gravel below him as walks at an anxious pace along the familiar path ahead of him. When he veers off onto the smaller lightly trodden trail, the moonlight shines on the waxy leaves of the birch trees that feather their branches along the route, giving them an ethereal glimmer. Several minutes pass until he can see the clearing that marks their meeting place, the dark water of Wabigoon Lake shimmering in the dim light.

He pauses, the sparkle of the water momentarily mesmerizing him. An owl lets out a solemn cry. As he feared, longed for, and denied – he is alone. He leans against a tree near the waters edge, letting his breath slide out of him in synchronicity with his body as he lets his legs collapse beneath him, dragging his back along the bark, tearing at him.

He rests his head in his hands, trying to get ahold of his conflicting emotions. She had pushed him away and eventually he had responded in kind. He could not expect their friendship to continue. It wasn’t feasible in this suffocating town; where everyone thinks they know you and if they don’t, they make believe they do. There is no place for your own self. His voice will never be heard here – especially now that she is …(sorry, spoiler removed!)


If you have writing exercises that helped inspire you, I would love to hear about it!

Why J. R.? Using a pen name.

J.R. Ewing
Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing in Dallas

A few people have asked me why I’m using what appears to be a pseudonym. I’d like to make clear that I’m not ashamed of my writing in any way. I’m proud that I’ve finally pursued my lifelong dream; that I finally ignored the shroud of doubt and ducked out from underneath it…well maybe it started with a peak.

Here are the reasons that I’m using J.R. Yates and not my ‘real’ name.

  1. My writing has some adult and sexual content. In my career as a speech-language pathologist (SLP), I work with young children and their families in the public health system. At this point, I feel that it’s best to keep my professional career and writing separate.
  1. Unspeakable has a speech-language pathologist as its main protagonist. In the book, Hanna sees a varied group of patients. For now, it’s best if Hanna and my SLP alter-ego have some separation – that patients don’t feel that I’m writing about them. I assure you, although I pull from experience, every single character in Unspeakable is fictional.
  1. I’ll just come right out and say it – I have a generic name. More than that – I have a generic French Canadian name. J. R. stands for my first name and maiden name. If you Googled the name that I’ve used my entire life, you wouldn’t find me. You would come up with about a zillion obits for ninety-year-old women in Quebec. I’m in no way ashamed of my heritage – quite the opposite. I never took my husband’s name; I’ve been using my maiden without fail for all 12 years of marriage (yes, I’m one of those women). My name makes me readily identifiable as French (I see French and English clients), and I want my kids to know and recognize the French part of their heritage. Which brings me to my final reason…
  1. My kids. I want my kids to be proud of their mom for following her dream. So, if Unspeakable ever gets published (fingers crossed), I would love for it to have their last names on it. It’s my way of sharing my accomplishment with them.


How I Wrote My First Published Work: Unfaithful


“Write something from the point of view of an inanimate object.” That was the assignment in my intermediate creative writing class at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre. I’m not sure what writing muscle it was meant to flex, but Unfaithful was the result.


My teacher, Robin Van Eck, had given the assignment the day before. I don’t have much time to carve out for myself (I have to sneak away just to pee, and the people – the little Yates people – they always manage to find me mid-stream). But on this particular evening, after clearing the dinner table, I was struck with the idea of what to write. “Dolls and mannequins were cliché and had been done to death,” Robin had said. “Be original.”


So, what? Another toy? No, too similar to a doll. What would speak to me as a mother? A wife? And it hit me – along with the constant stream of beeps, chimes, and notifications. That damned cell phone….

An Affair with Smartphone

It was one of those divine moments that writer’s hope will strike them when they sit down, fingers to keyboard. At the kitchen island, I tapped furiously on my laptop while my husband did the dishes (yes, he does dishes…and laundry too). Miraculously, no one interrupted me, and it was done in one sitting – about 20 minutes. That doesn’t mean I didn’t edit it after – but for the most part it was done. I wish it was always like that…but it often isn’t. (click here for my post on writer’s block).


I brought my completed assignment to class the following week and sputtered, red-faced, as I read it aloud. Robin gave me a, “Wow”, and I gave her a, “Yeah? But what do I do with it?”


She directed me to A Place for Writers website. There I found In My Bed Magazine’s call for submissions for their “Sex and Magic” issue. I thought, “Not quite magic, but close…”, but figured it didn’t hurt to try, so I submitted it.


I was shocked when a few weeks later I received the acceptance! My first submission and I got an acceptance. Unheard of – and probably dumb luck – but I’ll take it.


All in all, I’m proud of this little piece. It really speaks to my disillusionment with how we ‘connect’ with each other these days, but yet are so disconnected. You can read Unfaithful by clicking here.